German CEO A Cultural Revolution In Paris

French insurance giant Axa has appointed Thomas Buberl as its chief executive. He is the first German to head a major French company.
Thomas Buberl, the new CEO of French insurance giant Axa.

Thomas Buberl hasn’t had time to look for an apartment or schools for his children yet. It was only Saturday that he was confirmed as Henri de Castries’s successor as chief executive of Axa, the second largest insurance company in Europe. The decision surprised outsiders, and maybe even Mr. Buberl himself. The appointment will make Mr. Buberl, who takes over in September, the first German executive to lead a major French company.

This marks a cultural revolution for Axa, and for French business as a whole. Frank Esser, also German, heads telecommunications company SFR, but Axa is a company on quite a different scale. Tom Enders, another German, is boss of Airbus. But Airbus is a German-French-Spanish hybrid group. Axa has traditionally been as French as Camembert cheese.

The decision is consistent with Mr. de Castries’ thinking: he says nationality is no longer an issue at Axa. “Europe is our homeland,” he said. “The company is a meritocracy, it is all simply a question of talent.” Mr. de Castries will leave Axa in the fall.

There are three great challenges ahead for the insurance business: low interest rates, weak growth and the impact of digitization. Thomas Buberl, future CEO, Axa Insurance Group

Mr. Buberl introduced himself to the media on Monday, appearing with Mr. de Castries and Denis Duverne, who will take over as chairman of the supervisory board. Mr. Buberl, until now in charge of the company’s German subsidiary, answered questions in perfect French. There are three great challenges ahead, he said: “Low interest rates, weak growth and the impact of digitization.”

On June 21, Axa will unveil its new strategy for the next four years. That's why they made the change now, Mr. Buberl and Mr. de Castries explained: “We decided the new team should be responsible for the plan from the very start.” Mr. de Castries has run Axa for the last 17 years, overseeing an 8-fold increase in profits. He explained he “would be available to Thomas right away” – meaning that Mr. Buberl can start making decisions even before he formally takes over the position.

Together with Mr. Duverne, Mr. Buberl must select his own successor to sit on the management board, and a new deputy CEO, since Mr. Duverne will give up this role. For the last 8 years, Mr. de Castries has been supervisory board chairman as well as chief executive, but Axa now wants to separate the two positions. Mr. Buberl and Mr. Duverne said they already had a close working relationship because they met each other weekly for board meetings. Recently, Mr. Buberl was not only in charge of Axa Germany; he was also responsible for the whole group's life and health insurance.

Mr. de Castries was lavish in his praise for his young successor. “He will be better than I was,” he said, “Although he is younger than me when I took this job, he already has more experience.” He emphasized that Mr. Buberl has held leadership roles for the last 8 years: at Winterthur, which was taken over by Axa, then with Zürich, a competitor, and finally again with Axa.

In spite of the strong support of Mr. de Castries and Mr. Duverne, Mr. Buberl faces tough challenges. A majority of Axa’s shareholders are not French. One third of the stock belongs to American institutions and individuals. The board, whose working language is English, is already highly international. But putting a German in the top job could still raise eyebrows. There are stark contrasts between Mr. Buberl and his predecessor: Mr. de Castries may project an easy-going, European image, but he comes from old French nobility. His uncle was a commander at Dien Bien Phu, a key battle in the French war in Indochina, and Mr. de Castries himself served as an officer in the paratroop regiment.

However, things may change with a German at the top. Mr. de Castries alluded to this: asked if his successor would comment as freely as he had on French politics, he said: “That is a tricky topic: give Thomas some time to find his own style.” Mr. de Castries said the transition period was an opportunity for his successor. “I’m not going to run off like a thief in the night. Thomas will have the time to get organized and to get to know the team better.” He said he would be “at Thomas’ service in the meantime to prepare the next stage.”

Mr. Buberl’s promotion is part of an extraordinary wave of changes at the top of Europe’s insurance business. Many companies, including Zurich and Germany’s R+V, have hired new, younger chief executives. “The whole sector is changing in a way I haven’t seen in years,” said Alexander Erdland, CEO of Stuttgart-based financial services company W&W and also president of GDV, the German insurance industry association. Mr. Erdland himself will soon be succeeded on W&W’s board by the 46-year-old Jürgen Albert Junker.

The whole insurance sector is changing in a way I haven’t seen in years. Alexander Erdland, CEO, financial services company W&W

The wave of changes at the top coincides with gigantic challenges for the industry. Low interest rates are gnawing away at the sector’s financial foundations, and new technology is expected to have a major impact. The coming of driverless cars, for example, could eliminate an entire pillar of traditional insurance. Many companies think younger chief executives may help them navigate this looming disruption.

As for Mr. de Castries, the veteran insurance man kept quiet about his own future. Speculation is rampant that he will take over in 2017 as supervisory board chairman of British bank HSBC. But he evaded questions. “Don’t read causality into temporal coincidence,” he said. He said he was not headed for a quiet retirement, however: “I’m not going into an old people’s home, and I won’t play golf!” insisted the youthful French executive, in his near-perfect German.

Mr. Buberl said his focus would be on further digitization of the company, as well as growth outside of Europe. “There are plenty of emerging markets which have good growth, we must look for our business expansion there,” he said.

Mr. Buberl had another search on his mind, too: an apartment for his family, and schools in Paris for his children, aged 7 and 11 years old.

 

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt's correspondent in Paris. To contact the author: [email protected].